Electrical service is a convenience most homeowners just take for granted. Lights and appliances turn on when we flip a switch. It happens with no additional thought on our part. While it’s great that we can rely on that steady flow of power, we do need to accept the responsibility to understand the components and ensure that we take care of them properly so our family remains safe in our home.
Circuit breakers and the panels they are located in are one of those “forgotten” system components. It’s easy to see why: According to both the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and This Old House (TOH) magazine, the expected lifespan of circuit breakers is 20 to 40 years, depending on the manufacturer and how they are taken care of.
What is a circuit breaker?
The circuit breaker panel is the location where electricity first flows into your home and it safely directs electricity throughout your home. The circuit breaker system will trip—or shut off—whenever too much electricity attempts to flow through it. The more “trips” your circuit breakers experience, the more wear-and-tear on your system. This can lead to malfunctions, which can endanger your home and your family.
The most common reasons why a circuit breaker may trip are:
- Overloaded circuits. This means there is too much electrical demand, caused by too many devices drawing on electricity from the circuit at once. This demand can cause the circuit to overheat. The breaker shuts down the power to prevent damage. Solve this issue by unplugging appliances when you aren’t using them, spreading plugged-in appliances over other circuit breakers or upgrading the circuit to handle the extra load.
- A short-circuit. This occurs when a “hot” or active wire comes into direct contact with the neutral path of the circuit. This creates a lot of heat—which can lead to a fire—so if this is your problem, call on a professional to fix faulty wiring, the malfunctioning appliance or loose connections ASAP.
What is a ground-fault circuit interrupter?
Sometimes “circuit breaker-type” ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) are also located in the breaker panel to protect their entire wiring circuit. They look a lot like circuit breakers but have a TEST button on them. However, “receptacle-type” GFCIs are more common. These GFCIs look like common wall outlets, but they have a TEST and a RESET button on them. Receptacle-type GFCIs are typically located where water is present like kitchens, laundry rooms, bathrooms, garages, or outdoors areas.
GFCIs protect you and your family from accidental electrical shocks. They trip or shut off the circuit if there is a difference (as small as 4 or 5 milliamps) between the electric current flowing into the circuit versus that flowing out. The GFCI reacts quickly (in less than one-tenth of a second). A ground-fault occurs when electricity flows through an unintended path to ground. This can occur when plugged-in equipment is wet, damaged or defective, or if a person accidently touches live electrical parts and becomes a path to ground. If you suspect you might have a ground fault, you should get it repaired immediately by a qualified electrician.
You may be annoyed by a tripping circuit breaker or GFCI, but instead you should be pleased that the system is working correctly! That’s because these trips protect you from dangers that can result from malfunctions in the system. If the electricity is prevented from flowing through the system to an appliance or outlet, your home and the person on the end of the electrical cord won’t be harmed.
When a circuit breaker should be replaced
American Home Shield provides these warning signs indicating that a breaker has gone bad:
- The breaker won’t stay reset and/or trips frequently
- A burning smell in the circuit breaker panel
- Signs of damage to the breaker, such as scorch marks
Additional clues you might notice include flickering lights, interruptions with appliance operation, frequently burned-out light bulbs, or heat emanating from your breaker box when experiencing issues.
To be proactive, TOH recommends manually tripping and resetting each breaker several times a year to be sure they are working properly, and then replacing any that don’t snap back to the ON position when flipped.
Safe Electricity.org recommends monthly testing of GFCIs to ensure they are in working condition. Whether you have a receptacle or circuit breaker GFCI, pushing the TEST button should turn off the power to the circuit. For the receptacle-type GFCI, pushing the TEST button should cause the RESET button to pop up. (Remember to push the RESET button to re-establish power and protection.) For the circuit breaker-type GFCI, pushing the TEST button should cause the handle to move to the tripped position. (Remember to reset the handle to re-establish power and protection.)